Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Entertaining but a little flat

The Day the Music Died

By Ed Gorman

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars



The Day the Music Died is the first book in Ed Gorman's series featuring perpetually broke lawyer/P.I. Sam McCain. It was published in 1998 but is now being re-released on Dec. 31th, 2013 by both Mysterious Press and Open Roads Media.. Not coincidentally this makes it my last review for 2013.

I must confess that I decided to read this for the title. I love fiction that has a basis in musical pop culture. For those who don't know, the title is a line from Don Mclean's song American Pie which refers to the airplane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and The Big Bopper. All of the titles of the Sam McCain novels come from song lines or titles. So my first and biggest disappointment was that Ed Gorman does not use the music very much or as much as I would suspect. The day Buddy Holly dies is the day this mystery begins but very little comes from this tie-in. More disturbingly, the protagonist Sam McCain relates as much feeling to the death of his hero as to the death of his friends which is almost none. I know McCain is a typical macho P. I. but a little insight might have been nice.

But laying off of that peeve, I have to admit that this mystery is rather entertaining if a little predictable and flat. McCain finds the spoiled son of his boss, the judge in a small town, with his wife who he presumably shot. The spoiled son then kills himself. it looks like a clear-cut murder/suicide but of course Sam is suspicious.

Here we come to the main strength of this novel. Sam investigates and find himself addressing many different people with different strokes in this small town. The author's strong point is making the town and the interactions of its inhabitants a prime part of the puzzle. Gorman has a good feel of small town life in the 50s and it shows. The author uses some social topics well, placing them nicely in the '50 mentality. As a whole, the characters feel real. Yet individually, they seem like cogs in a wheel showing little dimension. I especially wanted to find out more about our main character besides the fact that he is whining about the girl he will never get...at least not in the first novel. While I enjoyed the novel it just didn't hold me enough to think about reading the rest. So I will never know if he gets Ginger or Mary-Lou. (not the names used in the novel. I just couldn't resist the Gillian's Island reference) Or does he forget about Buddy Holly in the nest few years and start digging the Beatles? I'll never know.

Method acquired:  Netgalley


Sunday, December 29, 2013

Exceptional horror...with popcorn

 The Drive-in

By Joe R. Lansdale

Rating: 4 and 3/4 stars



I originally wrote this review for Goodreads in 2010. However, since the book has been released in a Kindle edition in November of 2013, I have re-posted the review in a slightly re-worded version.


I just discovered I still have this inscribed novel in my collection. Totally frigging bizarre.  A different side of Lansdale. I read it originally  in 1988 remembering as a four star book but I think it is ready for a re-read.

So I read it again and am upping my rating to four and a half, maybe even four and three quarters. Just don't get that five star feeling but it is awfully close. This was written when Lansdale was a shining star of Splatter-Punk, a sub-genre of horror that has recently morphed into Bizzaro fiction. Those who know Lansdale only for his mysteries might be a bit shocked by the downright weirdness of his earlier writings, of which The Drive-In is a prime example. Lansdale's Texas authenticity is still there but is wrapped in a form of sci-fi horror gruesomeness that comes out like a Lord of The Flies as if written in a collaboration between  Jean-Paul Sartre and Joe Bob Briggs. Lansdale is still feeling his chops with this one. It gets a little out of hand and over the top at times but that is part of the fun. There are two other short novels in this series and I'm going to hunt them down.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Excellent look at a controversial icon

Junipero Serra

by Steven W. Hackel

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars



While growing up in California in the 50s and 60s, the name of Father Junipero Serra was well known to every school kid. As the title of this new biography states, he was considered California's founding father. There's a statue of Father Serra gracing the U.S capitol rotunda as a representation of California's history. He was the person that "civilized" the west coast. His missions still stand as a symbol of the Western exploration and settlement of California. You didn't have to be Catholic to view Serra as a saint which he seems well on the way to becoming after Pope John Paul took the third of four steps to his sainthood by beatifying him on September 25, 1988.

Oh, how myths die hard. Since then, reality has risen up and gave legend a sound slap in the face. While there is no doubt that Serra is one of the most influential figures in the history of North America, he was also a tyrant and a religious fanatic even by 18th century standards. His role in destroying vast populations of Native-Americans is significant. He saw them as "children" and imprisoned them at will and beating them lest they stray from the Christian path. Serra and the Franciscan priests were essential in bringing agriculture to California but this was mainly a ploy to make the California Indian dependent on the mission community and it damaged the culture immensely. Disease and famine followed his successes, decimating the Native-American population of California. Serra was also a member of the Spanish Inquisition and took his role seriously both in the old world and new.

Steven H. Hackel's importance as Serra's contemporary biographer is in his ability to balance both views of the Franciscan priest. He doesn't ignore the dark side yet acknowledges Serra's role in developing the Western regions of North America. He follows his birth and childhood on the island of Mallorca to his education and rise to importance in the church. The author traces Serra's journey to "New Spain" from Veracruz to Mexico City and finally to the task of building a string of missions in Baja and Alto California until his death in 1784. This is a fascinating look at 18th century Mexico and California with no sugarcoating. Zorro need not apply.

Hackel portrays Serra as one of those figures that does many things well and succeeds by the audacity of his ambition. He was an excellent administrator, a wise professorial teacher who inspired his students, and an ambitious seeker of church power that led to many struggles with the Spanish secular government especially in California. One of the thing that amazed me was that Serra did not start his California missions in California until he was 60. One can excuse some of what Serra did as him simply being a typical figure of his time in a racist and religiously aggressive society. Hackel takes time to note that some of Serra's excesses were actually normal procedures for Spanish missionaries. Yet I can't lose the feeling that Serra with all his success may have been "over the top" even then. After all it was eventually the Spanish government that removed his power from the missions and turned them from church dominated areas to secular settlements easing the intense control, even enslavement, that Serra had over the California Indians.

This is the kind of historical books we need; the kind that is honest about historical figures and not afraid to uncover the dirt while noting their achievements. Highly recommended to students of the history of North America.


Method acquired: Netgalley

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Christmas time suspense

Hot in December

By Joe R. Lansdale

Rating: 4 and 1/2 out of five stars



Hot in December appears to be a play on the title of one of Joe R. Lansdale's earlier novels, Cold in July. The titling is likely not coincidental since the film version of Cold in July is expected in mid 2014. However this new novella doesn't seem to have any connection except that it is a superior thriller. Lansdale does have a little fun in connecting other works by using two characters from Leather Maidens and some clever allusions to the Hap and Leonard series. There is also a cute reference to Sunset and Sawdust.

Having said all that, Hot in December is highly readable on its own and one of the author's better suspense tales. Kelly and Tom Chan witnesses a hit-and-run that kills their neighbor. Tom is able to identity the culprit only to find out he is associated with an organized crime network. What ensues is a life and death struggle in which Tom recruits two of his Army buddies, one of them a certified psychopath, to assist him in ridding himself of this menace. As usual, Lansdale runs a tight ship, tying all the loose ends together and making you jump at the right moments. Tom is admirable in his principles and his effort to protect his family. There is less humor than usual in this Lansdale tale but plenty of edge-of-seat moments. My main complaint is that it is too brief at 106 pages. Nonetheless, it would be a good introduction to Lansdale's East Texas world of suspense and violence.

Method acquired: Christmas present!

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The best of fiction and non-fiction for 2013.

It's Christmas Day. Merry Christmas everyone! I'm sitting here with nothing else to do until this afternoon so I figured it would be a good time to get out my best-of lists. These lists present the best fiction and non-fiction I have read for the year of 2013. I whittled it down to a best ten list for fiction. However, since I read much less non-fiction, I narrowed that list down to the top five.The books are listed in no particular order. I've linked the title to my review on The Novel Pursuit, Cool and Blue Review or my Goodreads page.

Best Fiction of 2013

1. Poe - J. Lincoln Fenn
2. Night Film - Marrisa Oessl
3. Sociopaths in Love - Anderson Punty
4. Shatnerquest - Jeff Burk
5. Doctor Sleep - Stephen King
6. The Hanging Judge - Michael Posner
7. The Thicket - Joe R Lansdale
8. NOS4A2 - Joe Hill
9. In the Land of the Living by Austin Radner
10. Psycho Within Us - Chad Huskins

 Best non-fiction for 3013

1. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth - Reza Aslan
2. How Music Works - David Byrne
3. The Leonard Bernstein Letters - edited by Nigel Simeone
4. Junipero Serra: California's Founding Father - Steven W. Hackel
5. Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion - Robert Gordon

Good reading and a happy new years.


Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Dark Dsytopian Science Fiction

Mistworld

By Simon R. Green

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars



Mistworld is the first of Simon R. Green's The Twilight of the Empire trilogy which is, in turn, a prelude to his Deathstalker series. It was published in 1992 but has just been re-released as an eBook through Open Roads Media. It is nice to see it back in print for the author knows how to build a world.

Mistworld is a planet that struggles with the Empire, a powerful realm that has the ability to destroy worlds that rebel from their authority. Mistworld is a bastion of freedom but is populated by outlaws and rebels which tends to destabilize its society. The planet barely hangs on due to its army of psychic protectors that enacted a shield over the planet. But the Empire's armies are approaching, various Mistworld forces are at odds with each other, and betrayal is always a possibility.

I like this type of dark dystopian fiction and Green does it well. This gritty type of future underworld gets its start from William Gibson cyberpunk novels and various science fiction writers have elaborated on the theme. Gone are Asimov's and Heinlein's vision of a optimistic future. Green's vision is of a technological advanced, psychically endowed society that is still immersed in class struggles, corruption, crime-infested under-layers, and dictatorial rulers. Green manages to put just enough space opera in it to make it slightly less dark and loaded with action. The author fills his tale with cat burglars, psychic hit men, and corrupt officials yet never loses track of these characters nor of the plot. Mistworld turns out to be a nice start in a saga that promises to be entertaining in its own dark and cynical way. Let's hope Open Road Media has plans to re-release the rest of The Twilight of the Empire.

Method acquired: Netgalley

Friday, December 20, 2013

Not very thrilling...

The Widow File

By S. G. Redling

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars


Dani is a data analyst for a security company investigating possible leaks in a corporation. She and one other analyst becomes the survivors of an attack that killed all the other analysts and stole their files. Dani is left to figure out why they are after her, what information they seek and why they want to kill her while eluding the a clever hit man named Booker.

That is the bare bones of a ordinary and overdone plot. You would think there are only so many thriller plots that an author can do and the trick is for the writer to find new ways to present them.

Well,that doesn't happen here. Redling's brief but excruciatingly overlong novel not only brings out all the old gimmicks but does them badly. It's hard to know who this was written for. It a suspenseful idea but the dialog tends to be over cute and somewhat YA in nature. It really cuts out the action. Dani and her cutesy named friend called Choo Choo are too unbelievable as the smart and resourceful characters they are meant to be. The villain Booker fares no better. Add in an large amount of filler in a relatively short novel and the result is with is a novel that just couldn't interest me, let alone thrill me. I did manage to finish it but it took a lot longer than it should have since I kept getting distracted by everyday life. When everyday life pulls me away from a novel, you know there's something wrong.

I received this from Amazon Prime's new First Read program in which the members get a free book before the publishing date. The Widow File was the mystery selection for December. Let's hope Amazon choose better books in the future. Barely two stars.


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Crime and slaughter in the Arizona desert

The Last of the Smoking Bartenders

By C. J. Howell

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars



The Last of The Smoking Bartenders, aside from having one of the best titles ever, is a tough and gritty novel about the dirty underbelly of America and modern paranoia. Someone once said that just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they are not out to get you. Whether that applies here can only be determined by reading the book.

Tom (just Tom) is either an deeply undercover lawman on the heels of a terrorist network bent on destroying society or a homeless paranoid drifter. He stays under the radar and refuses to use dollar bills which he says are embedded with a magnetic device that will give away his location. He comes in contact with Lorne, a out-of-work raft guide in Green River. Through a couple of odd and violent incidents, Lorne is swept into Tom's tale and recruits a group of meth-dealing Navajos with delicate trigger fingers to help him.

You know this is not going to end well.

C. J. Howell's novel has an unrelenting sadness throughout. Pretty much all the characters are losers including the FBI agent. Yet there is a rough beauty in them. It the same type of beauty that Howell describes well as he writes about the barren desert landscape of Arizona and the less glamorous parts of Phoenix. Howell seems to have a real affinity for down-and-outers which makes them more sympathetic than they would have been in a lesser novel. Howell's style comes off as a post-modern blend of Jim Thompson and Cormac McCarthy. He doesn't try to hide the brutality of his story yet the character's action make a perverse type of sense. The only place this doesn't ring true is with the FBI agent. The set-up of a disabled agent who can take any case she wants doesn't fit into the harsh reality of the other protagonists. Yet she comes across as a different kind of lost drifter and maybe that is what the author intended.

So what we have here is a unusual sort of crime noir novel or maybe even a contemporary yet cynical On The Road. However you look at it, you will end up with a strange and original take on the American crime novel.


Method obtained: Netgalley

Sunday, December 15, 2013

A heart-stopping medical thriller

Doing Harm

By Kelly Parsons

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars



Now this is what I call a medical thriller!

Doing Harm is Kelly Parsons' debut novel and it is an excellent start for the physician turned writer. In fact I would call it the best medical thriller I've read since Robin Cook in his Coma days and that's going back a bit.

The premise involves surgeon Steve Mitchell who is seen as an excellent doctor looking forward to an outstanding future. But a bad call in judgement threatens his career. When one of his patients dies after what seems to be another bad call he starts to question the facts and finds out that someone else may be responsible. What follows is a suspenseful cat and mouse game that may destroy his career and family not to mention his life.

That's all you need to know. There are plenty of tense moments and nice surprises. One of the non-surprises is who did it. We get plenty of clues at first and find out early on who the culprit is. Yet this is not meant to be a whodunnit. The tension is in whether our hero can clear himself and expose the killer. Parsons has made his protagonist flawed but admirable and his nemesis evil but frighteningly clever. The author does an excellent job blending his medical knowledge with the action. A little pharmaceutical knowledge might be helpful to the reader but not essential as Parson explains the more technical aspects in a way that doesn't stop the flow of the novel. One of the things I find essential in a good medical thriller is that the author writes about doctors and hospitals in a realistic way and this is no problem for Parson. A realistic environment combined with edge of your seat suspense is what makes this an excellent example of the sub-genre.

This book is being published in late January of 2014 so I can't call it one of the best novels of this year. But I do feel fairly safe in saying it will be a prime contender next year.

Method acquired: Goodreads Firstreads

Friday, December 13, 2013

Take two aspirins and read a different book!

A Cure To Die For: A Medical Thriller

By Stephen G. Mitchell

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars


Let's start with the premise. A botanist genetically engineers a marijuana plant and a poisonous plant together to make an herbal medicine that can cure any disease known to mankind and some unknown ones, I presume. The one hitch is the patient has to continue to take the medicine or the disease will return. The pharmaceutical company funded the research stops at nothing to eliminate the miracle cure, including murder, less all their products, and obviously profits, go down the tube. It is left up to our heroes to battle the drug companies, an evil senator (is there any other kind in a thriller?) and mercenary thugs in order to keep the research alive and therefore save humankind.

Let's think this through. The drug company owns the research, they therefore will own the patent and have a monopoly on the cure. I don't think it takes much brains to see that the corporation holding the cure to cancer, the universe, and everything will make tons of moola, regardless of what they sold before. The fact that their customer have to keep taking it, therefore buying it repeatedly, is icing on the cake. Why the hell would they want to destroy it? Now keeping other people from stealing it makes sense but destroy it? I don't think so. Such a plot would only be sensible to Laetrile proponents and gimmicky conspiracy thriller writers.

But if that was the only complaint I had, I could go with it. After all, wasn't it Arthur C. Clarke who said that every novel is entitled to have one unbelievable thing in it? Unfortunately, A Cure to Die For is sloppily written, loaded with spur-of-the-moment unbelievable contrivances, and packed with cardboard heroes and villains. It's the kind of world in which the evil senator sprouts out things like "Words are Turds!" and our hero's first thought, on finding out his new infatuation is going to die of cancer, is what her breasts will look like in the last stage. I know we males obsess about breasts but be real! The heroine isn't much better, going off like a volcano because her boy friend takes pain pills while she is taking a drug that is basically addictive. Well, OK. It cures her cancer. But I think you see what I mean.

Essentially, it's a thriller that isn't much of a thriller. It's predictable with no real sense of tension and foreboding. I really wanted to like it. Despite the preposterous plot it could have been fun. But the string of predictable actions and cliche responses got to me. By the end I was still rooting for the heroes but only so they could win or lose and I could get on with my mundane but realistic life.

So obviously it is a book I can not recommend. As I said. I really like thrillers but this novel isn't thrilling nor it is very medical.
I guess I'll just have to reread some old Robin Cook novels if I want a medical thriller.

Method acquired: Goodreads Firstreads

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A modern space opera

The Duke of Uranium

By John Barnes

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars



In one way, The Duke of Uranium is a blast from the past. I grew up on the space operas of Robert Heinlein, C. L Moore, Doc Smith and Andre Norton just to name a few. John Barnes seems to be channeling a few of these writers in this modern but somewhat retro space fantasy. I even sense a smitten of Orson Scott Card minus the pretentiousness and arrogance. Like most good space operas, it seems to be catering to the young adult, mostly boys, but intelligent enough for adults. The Duke of Uranium is a entertaining tale of space espionage and galactic intrigue.

So why am I not that all that enthusiastic about this novel? It does a lot right but some things bothered me...a lot. First, I couldn't really believe in the hero, Jax Jinnaka . He starts as a spoiled rich kid until his girl friend is kidnapped. Soon he finds out that not only is his girl friend a princess. But he has been raised to be a cog in a complex and colorful wheel of conflict between various power players. With that kind of scenario, you would think you would see sort of a sea-change between spoiled brat and warrior, But it never shows up. In fact Jax seems a bit passive, traveling and thinking a lot and getting saved by other people, to be called a hero. The other characters didn't help much neither . They often seem introductory, like being a set-up for a series.

Then there is the made up language. Many science fiction writers use fictional words and and slang to give an exotic feel to their stories. But Barnes' made up words do not always make sense. There should be some kind of mini-Rosetta stone embedded in the tale to help the reader feel part of the language and to have an actual sense of what they mean. To this reader, it just felt annoying. Admittedly I am no fan of this type of imaginary word play. Yet even the most used word in the book didn't seem to have a distinct meaning. I never could figure out whether "Toktru" meant "Darn!, "True Dat!", "Really?" or "Fergitboutit". As Jaz would say, I didn't dak it.

Tip: Add a glossary to the next book.

But there is a thing the author does exceedingly well and it holds promise for the rest of the Jax Jinnala novels. Barnes is a master at world building. The future alt-reality that he creates in quite vivid both in the harder (and more technical) science fiction aspects and in the description of the socio-politcal intrigue of the future society. The structure of his hierarchy of power brokers and their distinct philosophies is my favorite aspect of the tale. It reminded me a bit of Ian Banks' Culture series, another modern space opera. The author uses a lot of his novel to build his world and while it does slow down the action a little, especially in the middle, I still found it fascinating. In my opinion, world building is what makes or breaks a science fiction adventure novel like this one.

One more thing. I really liked the little computers with attitude.

So overall, this is a pleasant novel that holds promise for the rest of the series. I would like to see Jax become more three dimensional and more of an actual hero. I must say I didn't find it totally successful due to the issues I mentioned. But those who loved the science fiction of Heinlein and others, or those who just like to lose themselves in a different world, will find something to like.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Beware the Shatzilla!

Shatnerquest

By Jeff Burk

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars


First, I feel I owe Jeff Burk an apology. In a past review of Cripple Wolf, I insinuated that the author did not like cats. From Shatnerquest, it is clear he loves cats, or at least one particular cat. You can count me in as an official Squishy fan. Grumpy Cat move over!

Shatnerquest is a sequel of sorts to the very funny Shatnerquake. Yet it is separate enough in plot to rank as a stand-alone. Its premise involves a trio of sci-fi/fantasy convention nerds and one fat cat who, having nothing to do after a sudden apocalypse, embark on a journey to save William Shatner. Why Shatner rather than another pop icon like Bruce Campbell or Adam West? As obsessed Star Trek fan Gary says, "Because Bruce can take care of himself and fuck Adam West."

Yes, there are plenty of pop culture references in this short novel. Enough to say it is primarily a satire of pop culture fandom. Yet the references are wide enough to entertain even the barely initiated pop culture geek. More importantly, the author uses these references in very creative ways (Look for a very polite Dalek) and is clearly having a lot of fun with them. As much as I liked Shantnerquake, I found Shatnerquest to be even more entertaining and creative. I especially loved the ending which features a climatic battle between Shatzilla and...sorry, no spoilers. It's too funny to give away.

So over all, this is a hilariously fun roller coaster ride. I give it a strong four stars but my two cats, who are also Squishy fans, give it five stars. So rounding out, an enthusiastic four and three-quarters stars.

P.S. My cats are mad at me because I didn't round up. They are not speaking to me and parading in front of the house with "Unfair to Squishy" signs. So, for the purpose of bringing peace to the family...five stars.


Method acquired: Purchased

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

BOO!

Haunted House

By Jack Kilborn

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars



It is hard to know who to recommend Haunted House by Jack Kilborn to. To horror fans? Absolutely. It is a tight if stereotypical package of gore horror. Yet its gimmick may narrow the scope. Horror writer Jack Kilborn and his attached-at-more-than-the-hip mystery author friend J. A. Konrath have previously written six horror and mystery novels titled Afraid, Endurance, Trapped, Serial Killers:Uncut, Origin, and The List. In this novel, Kilborn brings back all the main characters of those books through the premise of a scientist inviting them to spend the night in a haunted house and having the chance to win one million dollars if they survive the night. They should have listened to the old saying to never bet against the house. But then we wouldn't have a story, would we?

I've read all the previous novels except The List and Serial Killers. I'm also a big Kilborn fan. So it was a little bit like homecoming week for me. Yet I couldn't think about how indifferent most readers would be to this gimmick if they haven't read the others. Kilborn clearly sets it up as a stand alone but in order to do that he needs to leave out essential information in the previous books...like WHAT HAPPENED?!!. This results in characters that are too cardboard when they didn't need to be. As for the plot, it is fairly conventional for most gore horror buffs and very predictable. I won't give away the ending but I kept waiting for the Scooby Doo Gang to show up.

Even with that said, this is a fun roller-coaster ride. It's not up to the normal Kilborn/Konrath levels of pulp fun and tension but still worth reading. If you can, read at least a few of the previous novels first.

Method acquired:  Purchased

Monday, December 2, 2013

The making of a scientist, indeed!

An Appetite For Wonder: The Making of a Scientist

By Richard Dawkins

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars


Richard Dawkins gets a bad rap. Sure, I understand he can be critical of religion and maybe a little arrogant.. He thinks the world would be better off without religion but never advocates its banishment. So what? I hate beets but i won't stop others from eating them. But Dawkins has never knocked on my door at 7 AM and shoved a religious pamphlet in my face. He never insisted on his ideas being read in Sunday school to provide a balanced viewpoint. And he never threatened eternal punishment if I don't read his books. So I'll give him a pass.

The sad thing about people's opinions of Dawkins is that they come almost exclusively from his book The God Delusion. Many do not realize that his reputation as a world class scientist was first cemented with the book, The Selfish Gene in the 70s. Dawkins's research into genes and evolutionary science plus his popular boos introducing the topic to the masses, would trouble no one except those who think the Bible was meant to be a book of science.

An Appetite For Wonders will disappoint those looking for the abrasive Dawkins. The main focus in this memoir, which goes from his birth to the publishing of The Selfish Gene, is on the influences and revelations that led to his love of science. He only pauses on his religious background briefly mentioning he had two short conversions, one from his childhood indoctrination to Anglican Christianity and another through the music of Elvis (If someone as cool as Elvis believes in God it must be right!). But Dawkins was more interested in the area of biology. Any more insight on the development of his theological views, or lack of, will need to wait for the second memoir.

Yet there is much here to rejoice about. His growing up in Africa with his two naturalist parents. His experience in the boys' schools of England. I thinks it says of lot about Dawkins that when he writes about the notorious hazing traditions of British schools, he downplays his own experiences but writes emphatically about what others went through. Also his first job at Berkeley in California not only tells in detail of his education in science but about his budding concern with social issues. Yet there are two areas that make this memoir drag more than necessary. His detailed ancestral tree may be of importance to him but makes for a slow beginning. And when he writes about his first research projects, his love for research come through but his insistence on describing it in detail to what will probably be a layman reader really halts the narrative. If one wants to explore that part more thoroughly he is more likely to read The Selfish Gene or The Blind Watchman, both books I highly recommend.

Yet Dawkins' autobiographical endeavor is quite enjoyable and has plenty of interesting revelations about this extraordinary scientist. If you are already a Dawkins fan like me, it is a must. For the regular reader or those whose opinion of him is only derived from The God Delusion, it might be helpful too.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Not perfect, but close

Perfect

By Rachel Joyce

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars


Great literary dramas strive on understatement. From the first few pages of Rachel Joyce's nearly perfect Perfect, we know there will be tragedy. We know it will affect two children in traumatic ways. But the author leads us on oh so slowly, giving us bits and pieces as we need them. We are given a tantalizing premise at the first page. In 1972, James Lowe tells his best friend Byron Hemmings, that 2 seconds were added onto time to keep it in sync with the earth's movement. What James accepts as an exciting bit of trivia, Bryon reacts with fear. Then an unfortunate event occurs that cements Bryon's fear that reality has been thrown out of whack. Everything that follows comes from these occurrences.

But the novel is about much more than tragedy. It is told in alternating stories. One taking place in the 70s and another happening about 40 years later.They intersect well with all the details being filled as we read the novel. As important to the story as Jim and Bryon is Bryon's mother, Diana. She is in a position of privilege but is uncomfortable to it and as delicate to reality as her son Bryon. The British author is taking on the issue of class with some devastating frankness. I was also impressed by Joyce's depiction of the Hemmings family. The father is often absent and while Diana tries to be a good mother, her relation to Bryon is more like equals than mother and son. We find the son often taking the role of dispensing advice to his mother which only heighten the sense of doom as we watch both of them unraveling.

It a delicate and beautiful balancing act. James seems to be on the outskirt of the action but often the instigator. He is seen by others as the troublemaker and maybe a bit unhinged but one of the delights in this novel is in discovering the true connection with the characters and especially the connection to the two individuals depicts in the two alternating stories.

The novel grabbed me from the first page yet some may find it a little plodding and frustrating. I can only say stick with it and you will be rewarded and maybe a little stunned with the end like I was.

Method acquired: Netgalley



Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Original, sassy, and scary

Poe

By J. Lincoln Fenn

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars



Let me get straight to my two gripes about Poe, mainly because they involve things not between the covers of this excellent novel. First, that book cover. I took me a little while to get to this book (it was a review copy provided by Netgalley) because the cover screams Young Adult. (It is definitely not YA). Also the title is a bit misleading. While the title does tie into the book it led me to think the plot may have something to do with the author who wrote all those delicious short stories. Sorry, no Edgar Allen. Never shows up. Missing in action. Different Poe.

But once I got over those two nitpicking distractions and dug into the 300 plus pages, I found a delightfully original story that spanned a number of genres. There is horror, mystery, supernatural suspense, plus a slight touch of romance. It is also quite humorous. Here's the bare bones of the plot: Bored obituary writer for the local paper in the small town of New Goshen, Dimitri, is given the chance to write a feature about a seance in the local haunted house...on Halloween of course. Naturally, or supernaturally in this case, things goes wrong, and our protagonist nearly dies and come back with a sort of ghostly hitchhiker he calls Poe. Add to that a string of murders and the plot thickens. Then there's that strange but sweet and quirky romance involving a girl who thinks her brother is connected to the murders.

Poe moves as smoothly as a novel ever moved. Each action leads to another logical action. Characters and strange events are introduced at just the right time. Conclusions are made and acted upon in a realistic manner, which is not an easy feat in a fantasy / horror novel . I am in awe of J. Lincoln Fenn's Rubik Cube structuring and the ease of which she pulls it off. But just as important is her smart realistic dialogue and the depiction of a main protagonist, Dimitri, is mentally smart in words and thoughts. I must admit to a bit of irritation with Lisa, the probable love interest. I found her a little insensitive at first but there is a reason for that and it ended up endearing me to both Dimitri and Lisa.

Overall, I was basically bowled over by Poe. It came out of nowhere and surprised me. Well, sort of out of nowhere. It did win Amazon's Breakthrough Novel Award for 2013 in the category of science fiction, fantasy and horror. The novel jumps into my own top five of my best novels of 2013 and is nipping at the heels of number one. I highly recommend this to anyone who likes great well-paced fiction.

Monday, November 25, 2013

WARNING: Gratuitous clown sex and violence!!

Other People's Shit

By C.V. Hunt

Rating: 3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars


I hate clowns.

I'm not afraid of clowns. I don't have coulrophobia. I just hate the MFers. It probably has to do with the jokers I was subjected to during childhood. Clarabelle acted psychotic to the point that I feared for Howdy Doody's life, Emmet Kelly looks like the adults my parents told me to avoid, Ronald McDonald is a corporate stooge, and Bozo was a...well...Bozo. I used to work with a guy that liked being a clown. He was one of those guys that weighed close to 250 pounds and drove a tiny car in parades. He worked extensively with children charities and was adored by kids. He was, and I say this in all sincerity, a kind, generous, morally upright person. But I never told him that when he was in his clown outfit, he was the spitting image of John Wayne Gacey. Now that's scary!

In Other People's Shit, C.V. Hunt creates a world where clowns are a disease. You wake up one morning and you're a clown. Think Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" with cream pies.You lose you wife, your family, your career, and end up being in the pits of society being harassed and working shit jobs. The author takes her title both figuratively and literally. Very literally.

Hunt sets up her Bizarro world very nicely for the first half of her book. It's very funny but also quite horrific. You can't help but feel some empathy for these unlucky men and women. The new reader to Bizarro lit may find this a little too bizarre. There should be a warning sticker. WARNING: GRATUITOUS CLOWN SEX AND VIOLENCE. But there's a nice balance between funny, gross and sad. Yet the second half, where our protagonists investigate strange overdressed bike messengers who are abducting the clowns, went a little over the funny scale into silly. I lost the social allegory that I suspected the author was making. But for the most part the good outweighed the weak and I enjoyed it in its gross splendor.

This is definitely an experimental read for most people. If you squirm at the scatological and blush at the sexually explicit, you should probably avoid this. For that matter, avoid the Bizarro genre all together since the sole purpose of the genre is to push the envelope. But if you are brave and feel that good writing shouldn't have arbitrary limits, you will enjoy this short and weird novel.

Method acquired: Review copy from Amazon.


Saturday, November 23, 2013

Exciting political/corporate thriller

The Candidate: Luxembourg Thriller

By Daniel Pembrey

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


Before I review this thrilling novella, I want to say a few words about my love for Kindle Singles. Kindle Singles are short essays or fictional works usually between 30 to 100 pages. They are available from Amazon and usually run between 1 and 2 dollars. I find them to be a perfect brief read between longer novels and a bargain at the price. The basic concept of Kindle Singles is a winner as they present well known authors and often introduce lesser known ones, allowing a cheap way to explore new writers. If you have not checked out these nifty short reads, do so very soon.

In regards to The Candidate: Luxembourg Thriller by Daniel Pembrey, it is a bit longer than the usual Kindle Single at slightly over 100 pages.It is also a very good poli-corporate espionage novel. Corporate headhunter Nick Thorneycroft is working in Luxembourg attempting to lure a Russian executive to his company for the purpose of expanding their business in Russia. When he meets the woman he has a nagging suspicion that he knows her, which might be related to the fact that he woke up alone in bed that morning accompanied by a pair of women's panties with no visible owner in sight. Not to mention that he was obviously drugged and have no memories of what occurred the night before.

At this point, I would be yelling, "Get another job, moron!". Fortunately for the writer and for the reader, he does no such thing. Pembrey has a intelligent and subtle style that moves us along quietly in the development of the mystery. It is to his credit that this novella has a very realistic scenario and easily passes my eye-rolling test. If I roll my eyes over the plot devices more than 3 times, I deem the plot a mess. I was so involved and convinced I didn't roll my eyes once. I could see this sort of thing happening easily...which is why I am not working in an international corporation.

What "this sort of thing" is will not be spoiled. Let's just say that if you enjoyed suspense thrillers with corporate hi-jinks laced with a good dose of paranoia, you will enjoy this novella. Daniel Pembrey is a new name for me and that only emphasizes why I think Kindle Singles are so helpful. I will definitely be checking out Pembrey's other books.

I received a review copy of The Candidate from the author via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. However I would have enthusiastically paid the 99 cents for this exciting read.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Humorous and down-to-earth sci-fi

Have Wormhole, Will Travel

By Tony McFadden

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


Have Wormhole, Must Travel is a fun science fiction novel with lots of humor. There's some physics involving wormholes and other wonderfully nerdy things but they are entertainingly explained, which would make this perfect for any teenage science fiction fans. McFadden reminds me a little of Christopher Moore, not so much for the writing style but for his use of pleasantly eccentric characters. The plot hinges around a duo of aliens who have been on Earth for hundreds of year in order to monitor the inhabitants technological advancements. Their own planet becomes worried about a scientist who is harnessing wormholes for planetary travel and they slate Earth for demolition. One of the aliens, who have become quite fond of Earth, wants to stop this from happening. That is a tall agenda for an alien considering that some earth girls are suspicious he is a vampire. It is a clever plot and McFadden has a lot of fun with it. This would be a good novel for someone who likes science fiction but prefers their sci-fi to be more down to earth, no pun intended.


 Method acquired: Netgalley
 

Monday, November 18, 2013

Terrorists, conspiracies, and WMDs...oh My!

The Tenth Circle

By Jon Land

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars



All you need to know about this book is in the description provided by the publishing company:
Blaine McCracken races to stop terrorists from unleashing an ancient weapon of unimaginable power at the president’s State of the Union speech

Contemporary global suspense thrillers like this usually come in two colors. They are either masterfully structured in a less is more style that enable the reader to believe in what is probably an outlandish plot or the author throws a lot of crap against the wall hoping that some of it sticks.

I am afraid Jon Land has a very messy wall.

So what do we have here? A macho hero, a femme fatale assassin, a seriously deranged man of the cloth, a handful of fanatical military types, An Indian sidekick dubiously nicknamed "Indian". I could go on but you get the picture. And I haven't even mentioned the plethora of deadly but unlikely acts of violence that our comic book hero waltzes through. Of course, there are mysterious historical incidents that feed into a doomsday scenario. Actually, I sort of liked how Land merged the Roanoke colony mystery with the Maria Celeste ship disappearance into a deadly modern scenario. I wondered if the author's doomsday scenario was actually based on reality and science in any way. But there were so many scenes that taxed my ability to suspend disbelief that I didn't bother to Google it to find out. My favorite eye-roller in the novel concerns a virtuoso pianist who is commandeering a military raid on her smartphone while she simultaneously plays the piano in a standing room only concert. Try to beat that, Alicia de Larrocha!

I guess it was fun in a comic book sort of way. Those who dig non-stop action thrillers will certainly dig this. Perhaps one can criticize this reviewer for not recognizing pure escapism and just roll with it. But it is hard to roll with the plot when the plot is rolling over you. So if you like this sort of thing, be my guest. I'll just keep searching to find a good contemporary thriller about terrorists and WMDs that doesn't dirty up my walls.

Method acquired: Netgalley

Friday, November 15, 2013

You gonna do WHAT!?

The Trek

By David Schachne

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars


David Schachne told me what I already knew. That anyone who would even go near Mount Everest and battle 18,000 ft elevations is either a masochist or a moron. And I say this knowing I get altitude sickness one foot over 12,000 feet above sea level. From the experiences the author had while trekking to the summit of Kala Pathar (elevation 18,192 feet), I think he would agree with me. Yet he also writes about the value of the challenge and fulfilling your dreams. That is the heart of his book. That is the part I took away from reading this entertaining story and why I found it a worthwhile read.

Schachne has a jaunty, also dark humor style in this book, which is mostly a travel diary. He has a pleasant style that looks back, to what must have been a difficult trip, with amusement and maybe just a little nostalgia. But he certainly took away any desire I had, of which there was little, to take a similar trek. I have learned more about Nepalese outhouses then I ever want to know and his depiction of food poisoning were a little too descriptive. But there are also sweet segments like his interaction with a poor but playful four year old girl oblivious to her poverty. I wish there were more scenes in the book like that.

The thing that makes this book different than others written about the same region is that it gives you a look at what the average person would experience on a commercial trek in the Himalayas. So if you are yearning to trek up a mountain in Nepal, you should read this book to get an idea what you will be up against. With a little luck, David will talk you out of it.

Method acquired: Goodreads firstreads

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A hard Rain gonna fall.

Silent Echo

By J. R. Rain

Rating: 3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars




I do not think I've ever read a mystery more depressing than Silent Echo. P. D. James writes some depressing mysteries but she's a load of laughs compared to J. R. Rain.

I guess if your main protagonist has terminal AIDS related cancer and six months to live, you're not going to be writing a comedy. But P. I. Jim Booker is really depressing. He crapped out in the game of life. He blames himself for his brother's death, the love of his life is married to his best friend and now she's missing. So his last goal in life is to solve the mystery of her disappearance...and perhaps the mystery of his brother's death.

Silent Echo, despite the downbeat vibes, is a good novel. Booker never sinks into the abyss of whiny and depressing and he is surrounded by caring concerned friends. The strength of this novel included a realistic depiction of Booker's dilemma(s) and a nice gumshoe atmosphere throughout. The main weakness is a mystery that is too easy to predict, mainly due to the lack of reasonable suspects. But there's no doubt that Rains is an accomplished writer in the modern crime noir style a la Huston and Lansdale.

I guess I like my Rain a little softer, as in the case of the warm and witty Elvis Has Not Left the Building. Yet this is a good novel and does give me a view of a slightly harder and more contemplative Rain.

Three and a half stars.

Method acquired: Amazon First Reads

Monday, November 11, 2013

A thrilling ending to a great trilogy

Bubble

By Anders de la Motte

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars



Bubble is the high-voltage finale to Anders de la Motte Game Trilogy. It is a nice little trickster of a novel that continues the conspiratorial mood of the first two and challenges everything the reader thought they knew. HP and his sister are still being manipulated by the organization called The Game...or maybe they aren't. The author has a talent is setting up scenarios and knocking them down. As far as the plot goes, HP is back in the game and Rebecca is now working for a private security firm not knowing that she is also being drawn into the game's mechanics. HP isn't quite sure which side he is working on and Rebecca is busy protecting Swedish royalty while learning secrets about her father. Old characters from the first two novels come back but not in the way we expect and the players have their own "Death Star" that they must tackle.

The author keeps the action and the surprises coming. There is still the quick changes in third person focus from HP to Rebecca and back that I found a little disorienting but they do work for this type of thriller. But I still think the author doesn't need to end every narration with a cliff-hanger. HP and his sister are having their separate experiences only to come together at the end but it is exciting to see how their discoveries merge together to solve the mystery. I especially like how modern this novel feels in light of the current events surrounding the NSA and data collecting. This is the type of book that should thrill tech geeks, suspense lovers and conspiracy fans alike yet doesn't forget how important three dimensional protectionists are in making a tale really work. My 5 star rating is for the entire trilogy as well as the final installment.

The Game Trilogy continues to be one of the best tech thrillers currently around. I received review copies of the American publications of all three volumes from Simon & Shuster, with Game to be released in December, 2013, Buzz to be released in January of 2014, and Bubble in February, 2014.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The second installment in the Game Trilogy.

Buzz

By Anders de la Motte

Rating: 4 and a 1/2 out of 5 stars



Buzz is the second volume of Swedish author Anders de la Motte's Game trilogy and is due to be published in the US in January of 2014. The Game trilogy involves Henrik “HP” Pettersson and his sister Rebecca's struggle against the conspiratorial workings of something called The Game. In the first book, we learned that a seemingly innocent, if slightly illegal, contest of internet and real life pranks has a much larger and dangerous agenda. In this second installment, HP is on the run from the Game Master and find himself the main suspect in a woman's murder. This leads him to his own investigation which opens up new insights on the Game and the mysterious Game Master. At the same time, Rebecca is leading a police security squad in Darfur and finds herself embroiled in an investigation that may cost the loss of her job or even imprisonment.

Of course their problems intersect and HP manages to be right in the middle of major Game activity. Buzz is more complex than the the first book titled Game, which is no small feat. It takes a program to figure out all the players but, with some attentive reading, it shouldn't be too hard. Some readers found this book too "chaotic." I found it just right. The translation issues regarding odd sentences and language that I found troubling in the first book, were nonexistent in this one. In fact, the language and narrative flowed much better throughout the entire story. The flip-flop of narration POV from HP to Rebecca was still fast and furious but I must have gotten used to it as I found it helped the fast action of the tale this time around. However the new reader should insure himself against mental whiplash.

The best part of this book is how the author used the social networking of the internet as part of the plot. He brings forward a less favorable internet world involving fake trolls, well-organized and disguised PR, and cyber-bullying. I've read other thrillers that used the technology of the internet as part of its plot before but Buzz does it better than any I've read. HP is still a likable character even with his selfishness and slacker ways while Rebecca continues to play super-ego to HP's id. I liked the way the story moved in this second book better than the first and the author made sure we still had plenty of mysteries to solve in the nest installment. It's no spoiler to say this is basically a conspiracy novel. I did find it quite amusing that, even though it was originally published in Sweden in 2011, some of the issues in the plot become suspiciously close to issues in the recent 2013 NSA eavesdropping scandal here in the USA. It's 3 AM in the morning. Do you know where your e-mail is?

The Game Trilogy continues to be one of the best tech thrillers currently around. I received review copies of the American publications of all three volumes from Simon & Shuster, with Game to be released in December, 2013, Buzz to be released in January of 2014, and Bubble in March, 2014.

Since it was slightly better from the 4-star Game, I'll have to give this one four and a half stars. We're not quite in five star territory yet. We'll see what happens with the third and final book, Bubble which I be reading next very soon. I'm hooked.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Book one of a thrilling trilogy from Sweden

Game

By Anders de la Motte

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars



Swedish author Anders de la Motte has written a high voltage, high tech thriller of a trilogy. It has just been translated into English after having some success in its native land. If the first installment, Game is any indication, I am going to have a good amount of exciting edge-of-the-seat reading in store for me.

Henrik Pettersson, mercifully nicknamed "HP", finds a cell phone on a commuter train. When he turns it on, the text addresses him by name. At first he thinks his friends are playing an elaborate prank on him. But as he follows the instructions, he realizes he is competing in a game where the participants do various tasks, some illegal, for points and cash. At first the tasks seem mildly mischievous but soon they increase to illegal and harmful activities. It becomes clear that the "game" has a more sinister agenda yet HP has become addicted to the fame and adrenaline derived from the game.

Our modern society is fascinated by conspiracies If there is none, we make one up. I think this is partially due to the instant delivery of news through the media and the ease of connections that we perceive from the internet. Everything is connected so there must be hidden connections that control our world. Or so we think.

I think de la Motte picks up on something similar in this riveting novel. While HP gets off on the attention that he receives from the game, his actions have consequences that he can't yet comprehend. Just how far the game affects others and who the Game Master is becomes part of the mystery of this tale. It's an exhilarating quest and soon HP, and the reader, are looking for accomplices everywhere. HP's sister, who works in police security, also becomes inadvertently involved in her brother's game and she has a little baggage of her own.

This first book of the trilogy is fast paced and full of surprises. HP at first is a somewhat unsympathetic slacker but as we get to know him and his sister we understand them and see their strengths. His sister is more mature but she has issues with her past that come into play. The interaction between the two main characters is part of what makes this suspense story so interesting.

I did find some areas that were troubling if minor. Some of the sentences seem stiff and awkward as were some strange wordings that may be due to the different cultures. For example "answering phone" rather than "answering machine". I suspect this may have more to do with the translator than the author. Also, the author alternates the viewpoint of the narrative from HP to his sister Rebecca quite rapidly, often in the middle of an action scene. It a bit disorienting. Not every scene needs to end with a cliff hanger.

But overall these issues do not take away from the fun of this novel. I found it a suspenseful and intelligent read. But how much did I really like it? Let's put it this way. I'm starting the second book Buzz as soon as I finish writing this review.

Method Acquired: Netgalley

Monday, November 4, 2013

A masterpiece of mystery and suspense

Night Film

By Marisha Pessl

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars


I love intelligent dark fiction. Night Film is both very dark and very intelligent. It is not the kind of novel that spoon feeds you yet it is quite accessible and entertaining in a quietly spooky sort of way. While ostensibly a mystery, horror fans will get right into the groove too. The plot centers around an investigation of the death of a 24 year old daughter of a notorious horror film director. Her alleged suicide prompts a reporter, who was successfully sued in the past by the director for libel after he made allegations against him, to find out what actually happened. Through the reporter's narrative and some magazine and newspaper articles judiciously sprinkled through the book's pages, the reporter is led on a mysterious journey involving suspected child abuse, mysterious disappearances, and devil worship. Yet many of these incidents seem to be strangely similar to the scenes from the director's own disturbing horror films, prompting the question of delusions vs. reality.

I'll leave the rest of the novel for you to discover. I like the way the plot unfolds slowly with a few jerks and screams to break the steady build of tension. The reporter, Scott McGrath is the perfect combination of brave and gullible that is needed for an admittedly convoluted plot as we have here. It's actually a miracle that the author pulls this off so well. In lesser hands it might be a mess but in Marisha Pessl capable hands, it comes of as an eerie and poetic masterpiece. McGrath quickly inherits two young sidekick who at first seem tacked on, but develops into sort of a conscience for the weary reporter. It's a nice touch. The director, Cordova, is a vague and menacing presence and remains so until we find out his dark secrets and even then...

OK. Enough. This is one of those books that you won't want to know much about until you start reading it. There is a lot of hype on this novel and at least this time the hype is deserved. Yet some readers may not be ready from the quietly eerie atmosphere that set the stage for this tale. But rest assured, this is a worthwhile read and one of the best books of any genre in 2013.

Method acquired: Library

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Strange but funny social satire.

The Hangman's Replacement: Sprout of Disruption

By Taona Dumisani Chiveneko

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars


While reading The Hangman's Replacement I got the feeling that Taona Dumisani Chiveneko wants to be the African Douglas Adams or maybe the African Christopher Moore. There is indeed an absurd wit in this book that is very much like these two authors.

But Chiveneko is much darker that either. He blends fantasy, horror and social satire in an uniquely African style. Yet the author doesn't quite gain a foothold in being compared to Moore or Adams, at least not yet. He still must find out that great social satire needs more than cleverness and colorful characterizations.

He starts out well. In the first 100 pages, we are introduced to Abel Muranda, a poor and illiterate farmer who comes to the city with the hope of gaining a job as the town hangman. It's not a job not many people want but the noble Abel needs to feed his family and get them health insurance, so he is very willing to take it. The character of Abel is magnificent; a simple man who turns out to be smarter and more honest than any of the people he needs to confront.

Unfortunately, he disappears in the rest of the book. We meet a variety of bankers, lawyers, prostitutes, assassins, carpenters, a insane genius and many more. It is a big unnecessary crowd that muddle a story that would have better spent with less frills and many less pages than the 500 plus that the author uses. The fact that this is one of a series and that we receive no ending payoff just makes this work more puzzling.

Yet Chiveneko does have a talent for setting character and mood. It gets lost in the mess that is a plot but it is there. It will be nice to see some more of his work but I hope he learnw to streamline and stick to one main characters...or least many less than he thinks he needs to tell this story. For the fact that the author shows promise, I give this work a very generous three stars. But I can't recommend it.

Method Acquired:  Netgalley

Monday, October 28, 2013

Psychological suspense from France

The Stone Boy

By Sophie Loubiere

Rating: 4 and a 1/2 out of five stars

 

The French novel The Stone Boy is a curiously strange tale of psychological suspense. The premise involves an elderly woman, Madame Préau who, after a long period of convalescence, comes home to a changed neighborhood. She is pretty much alone except for a housekeeper and a son who visits her periodically and seems to be distant and untrusting. Her closest neighbor is a family with apparently three children. One of the children, an older boy, is always seen separately from the others and, to Madame Preau's eyes, appears to be neglected and bruised. But the agency that investigates child abuse tells her that no child exists.

Of course, being a novel of psychological suspense, nothing may be as it appears. The author begins her novel with a vague but important back story and we know little about our protagonist at the beginning except she is probably mentally unstable, maybe dangerously so, and not all that likable. Loubiere has a talent for giving you only what information you need at the time, an essential attribute for this type of story. This novel did not grab me at first but as I read it but I was soon unable to put it down. When I did put it down, I found myself thinking about as if I was putting together a puzzle. What does this mean? What is the reality and what is in her head? The ending, which I will not reveal of course, was worth it and, I must confess, made me slightly teary-eyes. But was it a good teary-eyed or a sad teary-eyed? You'll have to read the book to find out.

Good psychological novels, especially those that involve a person of questionable mental stability, are hard to come by. The most common problem is that often authors do not know how to made a mentally ill protagonist full-dimensional without falling into stereotypes. That is not a problem here. Madame Preau is quite real with little stereotyping and endowed with a clear and believable pattern of decompensation. In fact, I would say it is the prime reason this novel works. The novel is moved along by third person narrative and enhanced by letters and notes by Madame Preau that lets us know more about her and the workings of her mind as the story progresses.

The only weakness in the novel is an occasional feeling of awkwardness and stiffness in the narration, especially at the beginning. It's one of those things I can feel but not necessarily put my finger on. I am inclined to think that may be a problem with the translation rather than the author. But it quickly goes away as we delve deeper into the mystery.

Overall, this is one of the better psychological thrillers I have read in a while and well deserving of more attention in the English-speaking world.  At the time of this writing, The Stone Boy appears to be only available as a Kindle eBook from the Hatchette Book Group.

 

Method acquired: Netgalley

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Classic sci-fi for the naive and cynical

Ender's Game

By Orson Scott Card

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars


I originally wrote this review of Ender's Game on Goodreads in 2011. It was a reread, having read it first in 1983. It has been one of my most popular and controversial reviews. I have re-posted it here due to the release on Nov.1st of the film.

I believe it was A. E. Van Vogt who said, "The Golden Age of Science Fiction is 14." And in fact, much of the classic science fiction of Heinlein and others feed into the mind of the adolescent boy. The protagonist Ender is an adolescent's dream. He is alone, alienated and feels he is not appreciated for how special he is. In other words, he is the average teen male or at least how the average teen male sees himself. Add on the naive and egotistical worldview envisioned by Heinlein and it is no wonder why adolescents flocked to the science fiction pulps of the 50s. In fact it can be argued that the teen sci-fi fan of the 50s was not all that different from the Emos of our generation.

Ender's Game was written in 1986. Yet it reads very much like a Heinlein novel and the plot and themes are not all that different from Starship Troopers. Card was smart enough to add in video games and the internet as waves of the future but the old Cold War mentality and the "might is right" philosophy hangs on. This is why this somewhat sadistic journey of a six year old child to his role as sci-fi messiah is so disturbing. Ender is brilliant but it is his habit of extreme violence that attracts him to his superiors. This appears to be a virtue in the author's eyes. In fact, one of Ender's teachers spell it out in no uncertain terms.
"The power to cause pain is the only power that matters, the power to kill and destroy, because if you can't kill then you are subject to those who can, and nothing and no one will ever save you."

Keep in mind this is being said to a six year old boy.

This is the basic theme of the novel. Violence is never extreme enough if it is for a good cause. This idea is never really questioned by Ender or anyone. At the end there is a twist that appears to lay doubt. However is not the basic moral issue in question but the assumption that sets the means to the end in play

This is why I cannot give this novel anything more than two stars. Card isn't a bad writer although some of his action scenes are muddled and he had an annoying habit of changing to third to first person and back for no reason. This was his first novel but I've never read anything else by him so I don't know if he developed any better habits. But this kind of philosophy in any story, especially one that appeals to teens, is disturbing to me. I'm OK with the idea of a young boy with talent being challenged and persecuted. It is a stalwart of YA literature. Harry Potter is an excellent example. But Card seems to preach "If you can't beat them, join them but just be a better fascist than they are."

While we are on the subject, Orson Scott Card is also known for his rather conservative social and religious viewpoints. One of those is his opposition to gay marriage and his basic revulsion to homosexuals in general. So why does his book have so many scenes of young boys running around and wrestling in the nude? Not to mention that the aliens are nicknamed "Buggers". I see some major issues here. Mr. Card, please seek help.

Friday, October 25, 2013

A good historical study of a controversial topic

Gun Control in the Third Reich: Disarming the Jews and "Enemies of the State"

By Stephen P. Halbrook

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars 



When I was offered Gun Control in the Third Reich: Disarming the Jews and "Enemies of the State to review, I was filled with quite a bit of curiosity. In 2013, when there seems to be a shooting a day by some disgruntled person, there is quite a discussion going on about gun control and the 2nd amendment. A lot of it on both sides is hyperbolic and weak with facts. One of those analogies you see quite often on the anti-gun control side is about the Third Reich in Germany in the 30s and 40s. The basic argument is that Nazi Germany had gun control and it either led to or was an important factor in the rise of Hitler and it could happen here. On the other side, the pro-gun control side states that using this is a ridiculous statement in that gun control was not the reason that the Third Reich occurred. So a serious, non-hyperbolic look at what actually went on in Germany during the rise of Hitler could actually be helpful to know.

The first thing to be aware of is who wrote the book and who published it. And, for that matter, who is reviewing it. Stephen P. Halbrook has written extensively on gun rights and the second amendment. The publisher is the Independent Institute, a Libertarian think tank whose basic stance on this topic is that any restriction on gun control, no matter how small, is anti-constitutional. My own position is that I support the second amendment but understand that some restrictions, like gun registration, may be necessary to protect that right and to prevent abuses, just like there are minimal restrictions to the right to free speech and the right to assembly to protect people against irresponsible and harmful behavior. In the arena of gun control debate, I would probably be considered moderate or in the middle. In most other things, I would definitely be considered liberal. So there is the philosophical starting points for all to see.

My first reaction to this book was how well researched and devoid of preaching this book is. Halbrook did an impressive job of researching his subject and preventing his viewpoint from overpowering the facts. He starts his look into German gun control laws in 1918 when gun possession was pretty much prohibited and severely punished. He continues to the gun control laws of 1928 by the relatively liberal Wiemar Republic that allowed possession of firearms but called for national registration. In the 30s the Nazis took control of the country and used these laws to firther restrict gun possession and to search for and find arms possessed by those they felt were a threat to the regime. In 1938, a new law was passed that forbade "enemies of the state", and specifically Jews, to possess firearms. The Nazis massed an aggressive campaign to seize weapons and arrest anyone against their government, securing the control of the country to Hitler and the Third Reich.

My synopsis is quick and simple but suffice to say Halbrook present detailed evidence of this scenario. Much of this evidence is claimed have been made available only recently. The author does not claim that the gun control laws caused the rise of Hitler's Third Reich but he does make a good case in that it was a significant factor in its success and was also a factor in the lack of armed resistance in Germany during this time. I also think he made a good case for the idea that any law restricting human actions, not just gun control laws in my opinion, have consequences and should be monitored for the potential of abuse by the government.

I really admired Halbrook's research and presentation. The historical facts seem not in dispute. However what can be in dispute is the intent and conclusion of the author and the publisher. For the question now is how much of this can be related to our current national and world environment. While Halbrook's book for the most part appears "to the facts" there are occasional statements that made me wonder. In the introduction of this book, the author states a movement in the United States exists that claims firearms should only be allowed for the military and police. That seems odd to me since I know of no group that takes that extreme and, if there is, it would be a very insignificant movement. I do know that pro-gun registration groups are commonly attacked as wanting to take's guns away from everyone when it is simply not true, I wondered if what I read was an example of that mentality. Another instance happens when the author relates an instance in the 30s in which a German Nazi attacks a Jewish family with a blunt weapon and a gun. The author implies that this incident in another culture would be used as propaganda against the Aryan using the weapon. I was very mystified until I realized that these sentences could have been written in 2013 during or after the incident in which George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin with a gun and could be implying Zimmerman was used in some form of propaganda attack, even though what actually happened is still disputed in most circles. I may be totally off here but I can't think of any other interpretation. I would love to ask the author what he was meaning or implying when he wrote that paragraph.

For the most part, Halbrook wisely leaves us to make our own conclusion but he is certainly trying to lead us to certain ones. I have my own questions needing answers in order to offer a conclusion. For instance, there is no doubt that Germany's laws, even those of the alleged "Liberal" Wiemar Republic, were much more restricted than anything existing or even proposed in America. Is it fair to compare one country with a tradition of second amendment gun rights to a country where such rights would be basically unheard of. Also, taking the current world situation in mind, all countries in Europe and Northern America, in other words most developing countries, have gun control or registration with America's laws being the weakest. I would be hard put to see where any of those democratic countries are in danger of heading toward tyranny at this time even if certain extreme conservative groups love to yell words like "Tyranny" when addressing the current administration.

Another interesting conclusion that the author makes is this. If there were not gun control registration laws in Germany, there could have been an effective resistance by both Jews and people against the Third Reich. That is one of those speculations that is hard to prove but I would essentially agree with it in the abstract. However, I do want to point out it is not a slam dunk. It is good to remember that at about the same time and across the Atlantic, Japanese-Americans were being rounded up into relocation camps with no apparent opposition and resistance despite the existence of the second amendment.

I do think we need to be very careful at what solutions we use even though I think national gun registration is essentially a sensible solution if done correctly. What I don't understand is why conservative groups, meaning in this case Republicans, are so concerned about the possible abuses of gun control laws while they actively pass laws that force pregnant women into invasive ultra-sound procedures just for considering their legal birth control options or pass voter ID laws that will effectively curtail the right of minorities and women to vote under the guise of preventing non-existent voter fraud.

So I think the conclusions can still be argued. But I do commend the author and the publishing country for providing a sane and well researched look at a part of history that is usually drowned in insinuations and exaggerations. I think it would be good for both sides to read this book, weight the information and the discuss the right way to address gun control issues using more sense and less accusations.

I want to thank the author, the Independent Institute and Netgalley for allowing me to read and receive this book. I suspect the author and publishing company may not be happy with some of my review but hope they will take solace in the fact that I actually enjoyed and work and found it informative. I also hope they appreciate that, in this particular instance, they were not preaching to the choir.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

An eye-opening sci-fi thriller.

POV

 

By Chris Brosnahan

Rating: 3 & 1/2 stars out of 5



Chris Brosnahan wrote POV in 30 hours. In fact, it was the winner of a 30 hours competition for the best novel written in that frame of time. For that alone, POV is impressive. I can barely write a short story in 30 hours. I guess you could be a nitpicker and say that, at 87 pages, it barely qualifies as a novella...but I'm still impressed.

But is it good? Yeah, It is really good. It's a nice mix of science fiction and thriller centering around a future technology in which a person can receive a device inside their eyes that can change their view of the world; change the color of your car, make your partner into a movie star, make yourself thinner, etc. The resulst are only viewable to you, or least that is what we are told from the beginning, but I think you can see the advantages. Our optometrist hero discovers that someone is killing the people that are receiving this new tech from him.

That's enough to know except to expect a few sharp turns. It's a good story especially considering how much the author placed in it with a 30 hour time limit and 80 odd pages. But that's the problem with it too. There's so much this could have easily been a longer novel. I wanted it to be a longer novel. Some things happen too fast and could easily have survived more build-up and emotional embellishment. Not that it didn't have that, mind you. I just wanted more! More! More!

I guess that's a compliment too. I'm not sure it is a fair criticism since the author set out to do what he needed to do and did it well. I gotta stick with my gut feeling. But here's a bit of unsolicited advice. There is a tradition in the science fiction genre for authors to take very popular short stories and rewrite them into novels. If any work is screaming for a longer rewrite, this is it.

There are also 4 other brief pieces included in this ebook. All of the tales are quite good with "The Warning" and "The Happy Pills" being fairly awesome.

The whole kit and caboodle? Three and a half stars.

Method Acquired:  Netgalley